Loki put a spear in the blind god’s hand, the spear of mistletoe, the plant so weak and so young that the strong gods had not bothered to ask it for its vow not to harm Balder their brother. The gods laughed even louder at the sight of the blind man with the feeble twig lining up to throw, Shef could see Heimdall, Frey, even the grim one-eyed Othin, calling to each other and slapping their thighs in merriment.
Till the dart struck. The god fell. The light of the world dimmed.
“You know what happened then,” said Rig. “You saw Hermoth ride to try to bring Balder back from Hel. You saw what they did to Loki in revenge. They forgot something. They forgot to ask why. But I remembered. I remembered Utgarthar-Loki.”
Utgarthar-Loki? Shef wondered. He was used, now, to the vagaries of English and Norse, still so similar. That means “outyard-Loki.” Where there is an outyard-Loki there should be an inyard-Loki.
“Utgarthar-Loki was the giant who challenged the gods to a contest. And they lost. Thor lost the wrestle against Old Age, failed to drink the ocean, failed to lift the Mithgarth-Serpent. His boy Thjalfi lost the race with Thought. Loki lost the eating-match with Fire.”
In the background, as if through the far-seer again, Shef could see an immense hall, one greater even than Othin’s Valhalla, and in it a table piled high with joints of beef and bear, man-meat and walrus: a table stocked from the smokehouse of Echegorgun. At one side of it a god sat gobbling, thrusting the food into his mouth with sweeping movements of the arms, not chewing but snapping like a wild wolf. Down the other side raced fire. Fast and deadly as the fire of the Greeks.
“Which Loki lost?” asked Shef.
“The god Loki. Not the giant Loki. You see, Loki was on our side once. Or at least half of him was. That was what I remembered and the gods forgot. But if you forget… he becomes the other Loki. The Loki outside the home-garth. The monster in the darkness.”
I don’t understand, thought Shef. If this all comes from my mind, as Svandis says, then it is some part I do not know. In-Loki and out-Loki? And Loki contesting with Fire? The word for “fire” is logi, though Rig did not say it. Loki against Loki against Logi? In-Logi and out-Logi too? And who is this first King Sheaf?
He shook his head in a kind of exasperation, and as he did so the vision cleared, he saw the far-off mountains beginning to thrust their peaks through the tatters of his dream, of the scene in the giants’ hall, devouring god and devouring flame. A hand on his shoulder, pulling him back from the near-precipitous drop in front of him.
“Are you all right?” Svandis’s copper hair and bright eyes looking into his own. Shef blinked once and again.
“Yes. I saw something. From a god or from my own mind, I do not know. Whichever it is, I will work it out for myself.”
Shef rose to his feet, stretched. The rest had done him good. The rest and the exhaustion of the morning. He felt as if he had sweated out the soft living and the mental strain of the years of rule. He felt like a drengr again, like a carl of what had been the Great Army: young, strong and cruel.
“Cwicca,” he hailed. “See that barn door over there? Think you can hit it? You and your mates, put four quarrels each into the middle of it, as fast as you can shoot.”
Shef watched impassively as the crossbowmen, not understanding but ready to show their paces, sent iron bolt after iron bolt thudding deep into the middle of the door. The villagers who had been quietly watching, their own bows and spears never far from hand, stared uncertainly.
“Styrr,” Shef shouted when they had finished. “Take your axe. Go chop those bolts out and give them back.”
Grinning, Styrr walked over, axe swinging loosely. He was glad of a chance to show his mettle after the near-collapse of the morning. The axe whirled and struck like the hammer of the gods, chunks of old oak flying with every blow. Shef could see the villagers staring uncertainly at each other. Styrr did not look like a man who could be brought down by a collection of half-armed shepherds. Professional warriors in armor would filter to the rear rather than face his axe.